Friday, September 3, 1999
Met You at St. Louis
Two former Crusader quarterbacksBy Pat Bigold
will face off tomorrow when Utah
battles Washington State
Tomorrow's Utah at Washington State game marks a rare occasion in NCAA football.
Two Hawaii-raised quarterbacks will play major roles for rival mainland teams on the same field.
To make the occasion even more unique, Jason Gesser, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound redshirt freshman making his debut as a backup for the Cougars, and Darnell Arceneaux, the 6-3, 200-pound second-year starter for the Utes, both played for St. Louis School.
Between them they won five Prep Bowl titles for the Crusaders between 1993 and 1997 and are a combined 62-1 as starters since high school.
"It'll be a great opportunity for us both to showcase our talents," said Arceneaux. "The sad thing is that one of us has to lose."
Washington State head coach Mike Price took a long time before he decided to start fifth-year senior Steve Birnbaum ahead of Gesser for this game.
Birnbaum completed 73 percent of his passes in training camp while Gesser completed 69 percent.
But he believes Gesser is the man to lead the Cougars' revival over the next few years. His leadership role is likely to begin as soon as Birnbaum falters.
"Quarterbacks are like tea bags," said Price. "You don't know how good they are until you put 'em in hot water."
Gesser is attempting to fill big shoes at WSU.
But Price said there's a difference between Gesser and his two famous predecessors, Ryan Leaf and Drew Bledsoe, and it's not just height.
"Jason might be more charismatic, leadership-wise," said Price. "He's a little more flamboyant than them. Actually everything is different about Jason. He's a little more like Jake 'The Snake' Plummer."
Gesser, who may see significant playing time in tomorrow's game, will be looking across at the man he once said he didn't feel worthy to succeed at St. Louis.
Before Gesser took over the offense of Hawaii's perennial prep powerhouse, Arceneaux had led St. Louis to three Prep Bowl titles. With Utah, he is 6-0 as a starter.
The fact that Gesser fashioned a 24-0 record with two Prep Bowl titles in the post-Arceneaux era hasn't diminished his respect for his former teammate and mentor.
He remembers the one loss Arceneaux suffered in his prep career.
"It was against Punahou and I was a sophomore on the sidelines," said Gesser. "I guess Darnell threw a couple of picks and Coach (Cal) Lee said, 'Go warm up,' and I thought, 'Are you serious?' "
Gesser said he hopes to be able to say hello to Arceneaux as they pass each other on the field or if he gets run out of bounds on the Utah sideline.
The fact that Utah brings 17 former Hawaii prep players to Pullman, Wash., makes Gesser's NCAA debut even more special.
"But it'll be fun," said Gesser. "I'm going to face the same scenario when we go to play Hawaii (Nov. 27)."
He said he will be looking for another former teammate, Wes Tufaga, Utah's starting middle linebacker. "He was a senior at St. Louis when I was a junior," said Gesser. "He used to be the free safety but now he's closer to the line and I know he'll be talking some trash and when he comes on the blitz, I know he's gonna give me a nice little whack."
Price thinks he made the wise choice in letting Gesser be the second man in.
"He probably would've been under an unbelievable amount of pressure if I'd started him against his old high school mate," said Price. "This way, he can relax, watch Birnbaum, learn a little and then go in and have some success."
Price said how well Birnbaum plays early in the game will determine how much action Gesser sees tomorrow.
"But I'd say he'll be in for about a quarter," he said.
"I think he'll play even more than that," said Arceneaux. "If the first team struggles, I don't think they'll hesitate to put him in. In these early games you have to get everybody's feet wet."
Price said he's learned that Gesser's arm is stronger than he ever expected, and he's impressed with his quickness afoot.
But the two quarterbacks have a common trait that sometimes makes their coaches very nervous. They like to move out of the pocket.
"We both have unbelievable competitiveness," said Gesser. "When we see that hole, we think, 'Can I get that?' Well, you never know until you try. I learned that attitude under him (Arceneaux) as a sophomore."
Arceneaux made a popular name for himself with his almost uncanny elusiveness in prep play, and he was dubbed the "Honolulu Houdini" when he displayed the same crowd-pleasing style in Utah.
"In high school he made a lot of things happen that way, but in college you can't leave the pocket that much," said Utah offensive coordinator Tommy Lee. "This year he has really done a good job of concentrating and staying in there."
Lee said that last year there were times when Arceneaux had the chance to throw with good protection but opted for the run.
"The guy just wants to win so bad that he will do whatever he has to do to get the ball in the end zone," said Utes head coach Ron McBride. "He's a possessed guy."
But Arceneaux said he will be less inclined to risk his body against the defense this year, for a couple of reasons.
One is that he wants to preserve himself for better late-game performances.
The other reason is that he has his own family now. He wants to remain healthy for his girlfriend, Nicole Walker, and their 9-week-old son, Cole Kekoa Arceneaux.
"I love him to death and I just want him to be proud of his dad," said Arceneaux.
Price said he's delighted with Gesser's scrambling ability, but he has been after him to stay in the pocket longer.
"He wants me to hang in there until that last second, to take the hit and get the ball off to a receiver," said Gesser.
"He has to allow the play to develop, let the offense work," said Price.
"He ran out a little too much in the first and second scrimmages. We're trying to break him of that habit."
Arceneaux said he thinks that Gesser is a very mobile quarterback and sometimes even more effective at it than him.
"He can move and then set his feet back up, which allows him to still look downfield," he said, "whereas I've always been moving and looking downfield on the run, which can hurt you at times. Having good feet within the pocket gives you a lot more time."
Arceneaux had surgery on his throwing shoulder and his throwing finger, but Lee said the junior's arm strength is better than ever.
"I really think he now has more accuracy, more touch and a tighter spiral since the shoulder surgery," said Lee.
"Sometimes he has too much arm strength."
Arceneaux missed three games last season with the finger injury, came back and then suffered the shoulder injury that sidelined him the rest of the season. He played in only six games, starting four.
Arceneaux was 6-1, 150 pounds when he came off the bench in the second quarter of the 1993 Prep Bowl. The next year he became the starter. He remembers that the man who gave him the chance to play was Kahuku High's Kautai Olevao, named a first-team WAC linebacker for the Utes last year. Olevao sacked St. Louis starter Joe Correia for a 10-yard loss to the Crusaders' 10 and Arceneaux was sent in to replace Correia.
"Isn't that something?" said McBride, marvelling at the fact that he has both players on his roster now.